NEWARK – When Brendan Gill told party members he wanted to run for Essex County freeholder, insiders concluded all he had to do was throw on the ceremonial sash and lead the latest parade down to county in downtown Newark to claim the 5th District seat relinquished by Freeholder Ralph Caputo.
“I think there were a couple of reasons to run, including the opportunity to serve at the local level,” Gill told PolitickerNJ.com. “I am a product of the 5th Freeholder District. Born in Belleville, grew up in Montclair and graduated from Seton Hall.
The district, for record, includes Bloomfield, Belleville, Montclair, Nutley, and Glen Ridge.
“My dad teaches social studies in Montclair and he taught me what service meant,” he added. “I honestly believe we have to send a message to the next generation that public service is an honorable and noble pursuit.”
Statewide director for U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) and local leader of the Montclair Democratic Party, the elegant Gill over the past decade built his cred as a North Jersey operative whose achievements included managing the 2008 Lautenberg primary campaign that flattened insurgent U.S. Rep. Rob Andrews (D-1).
But in overseeing his own candidacy now, the veteran, 36-year-old refuses to overlook an aggressive Republican challenge by retired Naval Intelligence Lt. Commander Steve Rogers of Nutley, whose campaign is already branding the favorite an out-of-touch liberal political operative whose best intentions won’t prevent him from getting absorbed into the considerable machinery of his party.
Rogers’s crime fighting image isn’t just augmented by the fact that he’s also a retired lieutenant detective with the Nutley Police Department. He’s also the bearer of the same name as comic book hero Captain America even as Hollywood debuts a mid-summer blockbuster, Captain America: The First Avenger.
“I’ve lived with that my entire life,” said Rogers with a laugh, as he tries to grab back a single GOP seat on the freeholder board that Dr. Joe Scarpelli of Nutley occupied before Caputo.
“Be it Republican or Democrat, any party that has sole power is not healthy for any democracy,” Rogers said. “It’s vitally important for a Republican to get elected. If there is nobody there to say ‘no,’ then you just become a rubber stamp for a political machine.”
The machine in this case belongs to powerhouse Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo.
“I’m not necessarily concerned about Brendan Gill,” Rogers said. “He’s a good guy and a good family man, and that’s important. What I’m concerned about is the machine he’ll have to answer to. I won’t have relatives in office or on the county payroll. I am a retired police officer and I’ve already made that pledge that I will not get into the county pension system, nor will I take healthcare benefits from the county. I’m doing that because as elected officials we have to live by example.”
He said Gill’s biggest issue may be more time management than anything.
“I intend to be a full-time freeholder,” Rogers promised. “With those two positions – state director and freeholder – he will have to sacrifice one for the other. I’ve always believed you have to be a full-time elected official, and he’s going to have a tough time.
“I have already gone door to door and what really distinguishes my candidacy is for 35 years I’ve been on the streets of our cities and towns, and I have touched the hearts and souls of the people. I’m telling people we’ve got to come together as Americans.”
A staunch supporter of DiVincenzo’s record in office, Gill also makes no apologies for wanting to fulfill both jobs.
As he drives around Essex County he said he sees multiple examples of how Lautenberg’s office has made positive contributions.
“In Glen Ridge I see a Superfund site that is now a park,” he said. “In Bloomfield, I’m reminded of a federal grant to the fire department to improve public safety. In Belleville, there is a new veterans facility. We have a new downtown development office in Bloomfield.
“I made a decision to dedicate my life to public service – and this position on the freeholder board is a natural step in my career. The job is a part-time position. All of the other members have other jobs. My job happens to be in public service. I actually think it will be to my advantage. The bigger question is how do I spend time with my family.”
Campaigning relentlessly to smother Rogers, who sources say could be a future GOP Congressional candidate, Gill said he understands a position on the freeholder board would give him the chance to try to help create more government efficiencies.
“It’s clear that government is being asked to do more with less,” he said. “These are extremely tough economic times, and I hope to find opportunities to bring back money to the district. We have to have an honest dialogue about how we’re going to generate revenue.”
Rogers said as a Republican beholden to no one in the majority party here in Essex, he’s the more compelling person to fulfill the role of watchdog. Gill wouldn’t mind having that conversation face to face with his opponent.
“I’d be willing to do it,” he said. “We haven’t gotten there yet, but I’m looking forward to a robust debate.”